Painkiller Jane is unique because she was never a big name in comics, and she's best-known (sometimes to the puzzlement of comic and graphic novel readers) for a brief five-issue run, plus a few crossover appearances with characters like The Punisher.
Most likely it was her attitude, sexuality, and her novel self-healing qualities that made this indestructible, vigilante babe lucrative to various producers and the Sci-Fi Channel, who tried to bring her to life in a 2005 TV movie starring Emmanuelle Vaugier. Two years later, with a new cast headlined by Kristanna Loken (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, The L Word) and wholly different team of writers and directors, the specialty station and several production partners (including Starz Media and Canada's Global) launched the TV series in April of 2007.
The DVD release from Anchor Bay / Starz Home Entertainment gathers the longer international versions (about 46-47mins. each, instead of the usual 42-41 min. North American edits) of all 22 episodes from its first and only season, plus a making-of featurette, and commentary tracks with Kristanna Loken (“Painkiller” Jane Vasco) and co-star Noah Danby (Connor King) on two episodes: “Nothing to Fear but Feat Itself,” and “Something Nasty in the Neighborhood.”
Painkiller Jane is a glossily lensed production with clean set designs, cool hues, and physically distinct actors who suit their respective roles with very precise physical qualities. The music scores by John Sereda and Mike Thomas, along with the title theme, is very kinetic, and many of the scores in the early episodes feature some inventive sounds and rhythmic textures that add to the careful efforts by the producers to make their show stand out.
In terms of the 22 scripts, interconnected stories, and logical character evolutions, however, the series is an utter mess. What the DVD offers, though, is something very unique: a learning opportunity on what not to do when constructing a TV series.
The Changes: Pilot vs Series vs Comic
In the 2005 TV movie, the comic book version of decorated street cop and undercover DEA agent Jane Vasko became Captain Jane Browning, head of a Special Ops military assault team going after international drug cartel operations, whereas in the 2007 TV series, Jane is rechristened Jane Vasco, an ex-DEA agent hunted by the IAD, and ultimately recruited by a secretive Special Ops team going after Neuros – disparate people who've developed very distinct special abilities, most applied via neuron waves onto normal humans, and used mostly for personal gain.
This overt sci-fi upgrade was absent from the comic book and TV movie, as was the team she joins prior to her exposure to the toxin that transforms her into a self-healing creature. Unlike the TV movie, though, the series writers retained Jane's fall from a high locale that first kills her; in the comic, she's pushed from a the building by drug lords, whereas in the TV series, she's tackled by a hypnotized colleague and tumbles from the massive corporate headquarters of Vonotek, a multi-national drug manufacturer whose founder holds the secret to Jane's abilities and the Neuros.
The TV movie had the recuperating Jane escape from her military environs and disappear into the civilian world, cutting her hair and dying its spiky design metallic crimson (a style consistent with the comic book). In the TV series, having Jane fall after she joins the Neuro-hunting team allows her to recuperate under the more compassionate and supportive eyes of her loyal team members.
Moreover, whereas the TV movie dropped Jane's surrounding characters from the comic book, the TV series carries over the doctor, named Seth, who promises to find the cause of her genetic abnormality. Like the comic book, the TV series infers some sexual chemistry between Jane and Seth, but by Seth's last appearance, he's a nerdy, asexual cliché.
Also carried over is Jane's fellow cop Maureen. In the comic, she remains part of the DEA and becomes a prime link to departmental secrets while Jane remains a rogue agent with a vengeance streak; in the TV series, Maureen joins Jane in hunting Neuros, but loses the husband that dies in the comic book (much like Jane's ex-fiancé, also dropped from the TV movie and series).
Retained from the TV movie, though, is Jane's murky family life, which gives her a sister and long dead parents. In the TV movie, Jane's moniker comes from the Special Ops unit involved in Operation Painkiller, whereas in the TV series, the moniker is attributed to her father, who called her ‘his little Painkiller Jane.' "Whenever I got hurt," goes the confusing opening narration, "I made the pain go away."
The Loken Factor
Although a limited actress, fans of star Kristanna Loken won't be disappointed by the physicality she brings to the revised Jane Vasco, nor a tough but playful, sometimes provocative tone that's later goosed up with increasingly deep moments of cleavage, and shower scenes with a boyfriend, a journalist named Brian (John Reardon). All of those primal elements make up for the decision to drop the raunchy style and graphically sexual Jane in the original comic books that made her a much colder anti-heroine.
In her TV incarnation, Jane Vasco also shifts from a loner cop to a lonely gal by mid-season, and while initially uncomfortable with dating, she begins to relish the calm and humanity that boyfriend Brian brings into her home life, balancing out the physical and emotional trauma from her job as an elite cop who works out of converted, disused subway station with her Neuro-hunting mates.
This aspirin-popping, government sanctioned bounty huntress must frequently save her colleagues and use her healing abilities to trick Neuros into lowering their guard so the team can neutralize their abilities (called “chipping”) before they're packed up and sent to a Guantanamo-styled detention center known as NICO.
The clincher: like the TV movie, although she can heal, she feels every physical trauma full throttle, making her gift more of a curse. In the TV movie, Jane's first healing from three bullets leaves scars, but like the TV series, her healing powers become rapid and seamless.
As sketched out by the writers, Jane's team members remain stiffly clichéd for far too many episodes in the season's first half: there's Riley (Sean O. Roberts), the young and arrogant computer genius; musclehead munitions man Connor (Noah Danby), who harbors a dark past between his years as a cop and ex-con; team scientist Seth (Stephen Lobo), somewhat reworked to mirror Heroes' own crusading geneticist, Mohinder Suresh); and strict team leader Andre (Rob Stewart), whose lack of emotions is taut and impenetrable.
More problematic are characters the writers didn't know what do with after introducing them in the pilot.
Jane's lithe partner Maureen (Alaina Huffman), who also joined the team, somewhat duplicates Jane's position as a rare woman among jocks, but her underwritten character and total lack of any backstory meant she was doomed to be written out of the series before she further weakened Jane's screen presence.
Joe, the team's technical caretaker (Nathaniel DeVeaux) and a guy who ‘knows about trains,' was never officially dropped from the series, but after a few scenes as a driver, he was excised from the main credits and plopped into some closet, and returned as a virtual background extra in the final scene for Maureen's last episode. He then spoke a few words in the series' infamous ‘flashback' episode (more on that shortly), was seen fixing a sign in the stellar “Playback” episode, and then disappeared completely, save for a mention from Andre, as the reduced team packed up and flew off to Hungary (minus Seth), to address a rebbeliion of sorts within the NICO compound.
Even more serious was Amanda (Melanie Papalia), a waifish nightclubber Jane befriends in her apartment building. From her age, cockiness, and habit of wandering into Jane's home (a secret government agent with an unsecured apartment?), Amanda was probably envisioned as a reminder of Jane's own lonely childhood, and intended to evolve into a surrogate child or kid sister, until subsequent episodes made it clear there simply wasn't any logical way to integrate her character beyond the ‘nosey neighbour' stereotype. The solution: she was written out of the series in her third and final episode.
When the pilot was written, the original plan was for a larger team – an effort to have workable archetypes who would shine at key points in specific episodes or stay in the shadows so others could shine and further their own character arcs – except when stripped bare, Painkiller Jane's episodic format is based on a generic cop show template: the team leader presents the plan of the day, gives instructions, and most characters go off to do their things with wan wisecracks and bleeding attitude interpolated between hopelessly familiar dialogue.
The decision to stay within this predictable format was the main reason Painkiller Jane had to struggle to find its identity over 22 wonky episodes.
Even within the clichéd template, a few scripts were mildly amusing riffs on classic films: ep.5, “Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself,” packed the team in a haunted government safe house, and much like The Legend of Hell House, the resolution involved the electrical vestiges of one man's rage responsible for the structure's weirdness; ep.10, “Lauren Gray,” plays with the ageless beauty mystery from The Picture of Dorian Gray and the “Queen of the Nile” Twilight Zone episode, plus a bit of Charlie's Angels with the fashion show backdrop; ep.12, “Something Nasty in the Neighborhood,” fuses the fake domestic bliss in The Stepford Wives with mind possession, a cerebral variation of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers hook; and ep.20, “The Beast of Bolnar,” riffs Forbidden Planet, borrowing the concept of a man's angry Id wreaking havoc on an isolated populace (and mimicking the creature's design, too).
Each of the above, however, had major continuity flaws, like the superficial Hungarians in the “Bolnar” tale not giving any attention to their dead police chief and the armed Americans in their town square; or the use of verbal techno- and procedural gibberish to cover the writers' lack of research. Fox' 24 is renowned for characters spewing all kinds of meaningless chatter to espouse sophisticated characters, but most of what Riley says are banalities about ‘scanning the whole terrain, complete infra-red probing, satellite surveillance'; they're deliberately goofy, perhaps, but also devoid of any credence, which also lessens Riley's position as a believable character.
Soundalike procedural dialogue was also used to fill in continuity gaps in the aforementioned “Something Nasty in the Neighbourhood.” Because the writers spent too much time on the setup, they had less space to detail the unspecified “samples” Jane amazingly acquires from unknown people by noon the next day, which ultimately convinces Andre to send the team in for another mutant extraction.
Continuity flaws also extend to the team's gear: the neutralizing chips fired into the mutants were initially done with handguns, but later the team are shown to possess sniper versions only because in prior episodes the technological limitations of a pistol allowed the writers to create contrived conflicts (and there's apparently only one chipping pistol, which is nuts).
Loken's position as a co-executive producer was an offer by the production to give her some say in shaping her character, and she does indeed settle into something more compelling than the tough DEA detective in the early episodes.
In spite of the casting changes after ep.15, there were efforts to give supporting characters more wiggle room to have some fun, or offer up some backstory: in ep.9, “Trial by Fire,” Connor is arrested for murder, which exposes a facet of his dark past; and Riley had a fun moment when he drags Jane into a magic show contest in ep.14, “The Amazing Howie,” and proves there's a way to de-chip a neutralized Neuro if needed.
The best tale, and the kind of tight plotting the show badly needed, is in “Playback,” which has Jane figuring out ways to stop an assassin who has the power of replaying a day's time clock. It's engaging, witty, uses the revolving split-screen technique from 24, and is capped with a great denouement, but given it took 17 episodes to get it right, it's clear this lone bull's-eye came far too late, since the following episode, “Jane 113,” is where the link between Jane's abilities and Vonotek begins to fall into place, and plants the presmise for the unrealized second season.
Some of the plots were apparently conceived by Painkiller Jane's creators, Jimmy Palmiotti and Joe Quesada (including the tongue-in-cheek “The League,” involving five power-endowed nerds who begin to use their gifts for selfish reasons), but the most structurally organized scripts came from Laurence Hertzog, a veteran producer/writer whose mixed credits include the clever red herring saga Nowhere Man (also cancelled after its sophomore season), and dreadfully bland genre efforts such as Seaquest DSV, and La Femme Nikita.
The worst episode, however, is “Thanks for the Memories” which, like a classic ‘remember when' Charlie's Angels episode, has Jane discovering the whole team's been killed. During her flight with Neuro Simon, she passes over her memories of the group to ensure their history isn't forgotten in case she's killed. Never mind it's a blatant, cheap filler episode that replays massive chunks of prior footage; the suspension of disbelief immediately disintegrates when Simon is able to leave the house with Jane in spite of being tagged with a tracking device at the end of ep.3, “Piece of Mind,” and the twist finale is exactly what one suspects.
Painkiller Jane is deeply flawed in spite of being an intriguingly re-imagined version of the comic book character. According to Loken's commentary tracks, creators Palmiotti and Quesada were apparently involved with the series, and pleased with the efforts to create a new Jane.
She's still a rebel, but her struggles to foster a bit of a normal life – something addressed in a short moment with Connor in “Something Nasty in the Neighborhood” – humanize what could easily have been a cardboard character moving through monotonous action adventures. Even Jane's personal narrations – borrowed from the comic books - smoothen some of the rough spots in each episode; she's hardly deep, but it ensures her character isn't regarded as fully vapid action figure.
Besides the cop show template, the problems with the series seem to stem from three key areas: coherent stories weren't carefully plotted far in advance of filming, resulting in lazy dialogue and filler scenes; there's no ongoing effort within most episodes to tie specific actions towards an established series arc, making the finale abrupt and impotent; and with the exception of Jane, opportunities to add dimensions to weaker characters were often ignored in favour of conventional plotting, perhaps a result of having most scripts penned by writers lacking experiences with unconventional TV shows, which Painkiller Jane should've been (and was set up to be in the moody 2005 TV movie).
North American TV is very unforgiving for tight budgets and long ad breaks; the roughly 42 mins. allowed to each episode (including credits) makes it tougher to write stories that must end on some contrived cliffhanger every 7 or 8 mins. As Loken points out in her second commentary track, these episodes are the international versions, each of which runs around 4-5 mins. longer, so fans should find the longer edits much more pleasing, and appreciate the extra dialogue and extended scenes likely included in this set.
Among the Speacial Features, “Behind Budapest ” is a straightforward on location featurette that offers some behind-the-scenes moments with the crew and director Gil Grant while they're on location in gorgeous Hungary, but there's no cast interviews; the focus is on location, production values, and the supportive production crew. What should've been included was a featurette on the character's creators, and how Painkiller Jane was adapted for TV, but those factors may have mandated referencing the TV movie, which starred another actress.
The two commentary tracks are major letdowns because they have Loken recapping her character and the series' premise (which we already know), and the morsels of conversation between Loken and Danby are beyond banal. They're literally watching episodes they haven't seen in months, and great big chunks of silence could've been avoided by having a producer join them, and poke them with questions about the series genesis et al. Loken provides some backstory to her own involvement with the series in the second commentary track, but none of it's unique, and could fit onto a postcard.
In terms of the DVD transfer, there's not enough chapter stops within each episode, making navigation a headache. Additionally, specific footage in the pilot episode and fragments later repeated in flashback sequences oddly contain perceptible video noise (possibly from a wonky camera) that apparently wasn't caught during filming. It's minimal, but the herring bone noise is definitely there, and distracting at times. The episodes, however, sound and look great (in 1.85:1, not 1.78:1 as stated on the box), and the production team did a fine job in trying to give the series a futuristic yet accessible visual style.
Anchor Bay's DVD provides an adequate archive of the series which could've enjoyed a second year, provided some major changes were administered prior to filming. Jane Vasko will probably make the leap to the big screen at some point, but for round three, the writers should stick to the comic book like super-glue.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan